- Dr. Ajay Rajesh, MD
- Knowledge Base
What Is Marijuana? The Beginner’s Guide To Cannabis
When there are over 1,200 nicknames for a product, as well as traditional names in almost every possible dialect – you know you have stumbled upon something that has time and again captured the imaginations and passions of human civilization. Cannabis/Marijuana/ Weed/Ganja/Herb etc. is such an item. In this detailed beginner’s guide, we answer the popular question: what is marijuana?
What Is Cannabis?
For a long time, cannabis has been used for religious and recreational use around the globe. From Indian texts (1), thousands of years old, to the modern Rastafarian movement (2), cannabis has found itself time and gain an indispensable part of human cultures.
Even in the West, before the last century’s dark age of illegalization, marijuana-infused products were used as a form of physical and psychological medicine.
Now, as bans begin to be lifted across the United States, you can see Cannabis products once again returning in force in popularity.
Hypothesis Journal itself is an excellent example of the culture reforming around this key ingredient once again being added back into the mix.
Did you know? 42% of people in the U.S. have tried Marijuana at least once
Source: Time Magazine
We are proud to be a part of a culture once again discovering the recreational and health boons provided by Cannabis.
With over three thousand years of history and a complex modern political landscape, there are plenty of things to learn about the plant, as well as plenty of misinformation plaguing the internet you should avoid.
To help you quickly get up to speed with the basics, or as a quick knowledge refresher, the Hypothesis Journal team has put together this crash course on Cannabis. We advise you to get comfortable. It’s time to learn everything you need to know about marijuana.
The Cannabis Plant
Cannabis is a plant that comes from and derives its name from the small family of flowering plants referred to as Cannabaceae and is often theorized to have originally come from Central and South Asia. There are male, female and hermaphrodite versions of the plant – but the flowers that are dried and consumed come solely from the female plant.
Within the family of Cannabaceae, there are roughly 170 species, including cannabis as well as Humulus lupulus (hops used in beer). There is no solid consensus on the number of species within the genus of Cannabis, though most agree on three solid sub-classifications: Cannabis sativa, Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis. Read about the differences between sativa and indica by clicking here.
Sativa and indica should be recognizable names to most cannabis users as these terms are roughly used to describe the version of plant and the subsequent “high” that consumption of the plant will create.
Sativa is often described as the more cerebral high, while indica is better known for its sedative effects. Both are used in the creation of medical marijuana. Indica plants are usually shorter and stockier than sativas.
Did you know? Time and again studies find that marijuana is less harmful than alcohol and tobacco (3).
Over time, human cultivation has created such a wide disparity of effects within each classification that many argue the difference is moot.
To better explain, in today’s world the difference between two strains of sativa plants may be more significant than the difference between a strain of sativa and a strain of indica. The vast number of proprietary cultivations have led to such a large amount of offerings that traditional classifications may no longer be as relevant as we think.
This is a rabbit hole of discussion we at Hypothesis Journal will likely jump into with another article at some point.
The term hemp is also used to describe cannabis, but it typically refers to plants cultivated for non-consumption.
The “Female” Flower
The most well-known part of the cannabis plant is the flower of the female plant. This is the part of the plant most commonly dried and smoked, and what most people think of when they think marijuana.
The flowers grow in clusters called cola and are encased in “bracts”. Bracts are the structures that contain the highest amount of cannabinoids on the plant.
Trichomes are crystals that cover the entire plant but are most densely concentrated on the flower structure. One of their primary functions is protecting the plant from UV rays. These crystals are actually glands that give the plant its unique taste and aroma, and also contain a fair share of cannabinoids themselves. Kief, a term you may have heard of and that we cover later on here, refers to trichomes.
There is a lot of speculation about the role terpenes play in cannabis, though most agree they are one of the main factors in the aromas, tastes and even the effects of different strains of cannabis plants. There have been found to be more than a hundred different terpenes identified in the cannabis plant, and each strain has a unique terpene composition preference.
Cannabis and Cannabinoids
Cannabinoids are a specific type of chemical compound found only in the plant genus Cannabis sativa. These interact with particular receptors throughout our (and most likely all mammals’) bodies, specifically the central nervous system. These receptors have become known as the endocannabinoid system (ECS) and react to the presence of cannabinoids to create a diverse series of pleasurable and therapeutic effects. Cannabinoids are what affects your body and make cannabis such a sought-after plant.
(Tetrahydrocannabinol) THC is the cannabinoid that creates the infamous mind-altering “high” that marijuana is best known for. It is the main psychoactive component in cannabis.
While CBD has typically been found to be the main component in many cases with medicinal purposes, THC has been found to be a key, if not a necessary element, in the effects of CBD.
(Cannabidiol) Cannabidiol, or CBD, is the dominant player in the vast majority of discovered medical benefits of cannabis. It is non-psychoactive and relatively easy to isolate and extract.
CBD extracted from the cannabis hemp plant and without any traces of THC is generally considered legal in most places. CBD heavy strains have gained popularity thanks to the growth of the medical marijuana industry.
The best CBD oils have been documented to have near miraculous effects soothing those suffering from otherwise unstoppable seizures, and alleviating the suffering of those with chronic pain. It has also been used to treat inflammation and boost appetite, with no health risks. Read the full list of CBD oil benefits by clicking here.
Cannabidivarin (CBDV) is often found alongside CBD and is a non-psychoactive compound. CBDV is the subject of numerous ongoing studies and may be quite capable of dealing with neurological disorders such as Parkinson’s.
Tetrahydrocannabivarin (THCV) is found in large amounts in cannabis. Though not much is known about its exact health effects, in more significant amounts it is thought to have psychoactive effects somewhat similar to that of THC.
THCV is being considered as a possible treatment for obesity-associated glucose intolerance (4).
Cannabigerolic Acid (CBG) is non-psychoactive. CBG is the subject of numerous ongoing studies and has recently been credited with many possible medical benefits including the limitation of tumor growth. It is an anti-bacterial whose role in the function of cannabis is still relatively unknown. CBG converts into either THC or CBD within the plant’s lifespan.
Cannabis Strains and Breeds
Understanding strains and breeds of cannabis plants can be a difficult task. Between the historical mistakes in classification and the modern genetic manipulation amongst the plants, accurately classifying a strain of cannabis is not as straightforward as many think or pretend.
While at Hypothesis Journal we tend to utilize the terms that are popular in today’s lexicon for simplicity’s sake, these really aren’t always the most scientifically accurate.
The original taxonomists were unaware that there were more than one species of the plant when they bequeathed the name Cannabis sativa to the lot of them. We now know there to be (arguably) three species, one of which is the “sativa” that we commonly refer to. The other two being Cannabis indica, and Cannabis ruderalis.
Today’s common terms of sativa and indica typically refer to the effects rather than a genetic or scientific classification. Most strains today are actually a form of hybrid. There are relatively few “pure” strains of one or the other.
Original / Landrace Strains
These are the plants in their natural (or closest to natural) form. Found growing naturally throughout Asia, Eastern Europe and parts of Africa, they are the pure original baseline plants that new strains are derived from.
Though they are the original gangster of plants, they have not been bred to maximize any specific benefit or flavor and are often not preferred for either recreational or medical use. You gotta give them their due respect though.
Sativa strains are typically used for more social situations where one wants to avoid the more relaxing effects of an indica plant. They are preferable for those looking to boost creativity or enjoy during the daytime for a “head high”.
Indica derives its name from the subcontinent of India (5), where it was initially discovered and labeled. When using the term nowadays though, people are generally referring to a plant that offers a stronger body-high. Herb users tend to prefer indica strains for sleep aids and pain relief. Medical cannabis often utilizes indica plants.
Roughly speaking, these plants are shorter and stouter with a shorter flowering period, making them preferable for growers in colder climates.
Hybrid strains are a genetic crossing between sativa and indica plants, and while many strains favor one or the other, most have become a hybrid over time. The effects, whether more sativa or indica related, will rely on the overall admixture.
THC-Dominant Strains & CBD-Dominant Strains
Some strains have been cultivated to bear the largest possible amount of either THC or CBD. Recreational users often look for the highest THC strains out there, while medical users will often try to get exceptionally CBD heavy plants to consume.
The amount of THC in specialized strains like Godfather OG sits at around 34% THC!
How Is Herb Prepared?
While a lot of people are aware of the standard drying process that produces the “nugs” (segments of the flower of the female plant) most often associated with marijuana use, the last few decades have seen the creation and pioneering of many forms of herb consumption.
At Hypothesis Journal we try to offer you information on a wide range of products, and while some ways are definitely more popular than others, there is no telling what your true preferred method is until you try, or are at least get informed, of the many variables out there.
Full of cannabinoids, the female flower is by far the most popular aspect of the marijuana plant. Dried, cured and then segmented to preference, the flower of the marijuana plant can be used in smoking, cooking, vaping and more.
It is important to mention that not all uses for the cannabinoids found in marijuana involve ingestion or smoking. Many topical creams, lotions, soaps, etc. benefit from the medicinal qualities of the plant. While these products won’t get you high, they do provide lots of the same therapeutic effects as smoking or eating the plant.
Derived from the Arabic word for pleasure or intoxication, “kayf”, kief is the term used for the trichomes, or small crystal-like hairs, that are found surrounding cannabis flowers. These growths are very dense with cannabinoids and are often sought after for use in concentrates and other very potent creations.
The process of grinding, or even just storing and moving around marijuana flowers will leave an amount of kief left over. Many grinders have a particular catch screen for this material. Read our beginner’s guide to Kief by clicking here.
Tinctures are alcohol based concentrates that make for a potent combination. Once, before prohibition in the early 20th century, tinctures were the most common form of medicinal marijuana use.
Made by allowing ground up cannabis flowers to sit in high proof alcohol for upwards of a week – and then straining out the leftover plant matter – you are left with an alcoholic drink infused with the cannabinoids you seek.
This is an excellent smokeless alternative for enjoying marijuana but requires a good bit of forethought.
Hashish has a long and storied history. Dating back well into Indian and Arabic history. Interestingly enough, there are some theories that this is where the word “assassin” is derived. In the middle ages, there was a sect of religious zealots who brought fear to their enemies – one of their methods of recruitment was thought to involve the use of hashish.
Anyways, you probably weren’t here for a history lesson…
Hashish itself is created by compressing the high cannabinoid resin of marijuana. Solvents, holt plate compression and even traditional hand rolling are all methods by which individuals create hash from the sticky resin left behind from working with the plant.
Did you know? The first known description of marijuana use was made in China, almost 5000 years ago. Additionally, roughly 780 grams of marijuana were found in a 2,700-year-old Chinese tomb in 2008 (6).
Either through CO2 gasses (popular for vape pens/vaporizers) or through butane (typical method of creating shatter and crumble) the resin is taken from the plant and converted to another consistency for consumption. This consistency can range from viscous liquids to hard “shatterable” panes.
How To Consume Marijuana
The effects of cannabis can be enjoyed in many different ways. While cannabis is still mainly smoked, those with compromised lung health, or a general desire to avoid smoking, have popularized many other methods of ingestion over the last decades.
Many of these methods are nothing new, “Bhang” for example is a traditional Indian method of preparing cannabis into an edible state and may be up to 3,000 years old (7). At Hypothesis Journal we try and offer you a balanced and comprehensive view of the best products out there, and this entails us venturing into the many methods of consumption.
To help you better understand these methods we are going to list the four major overview categories – this will have some overlap with the “How Herb Is Prepped” section, but will also ensure we are covering all of the major bases.
Smoking is still the most popular method. You just need some rolling papers and dried flowers to make it happen. There are a number of devices (bongs for example) that work to effect and tweak the smoking experience – ultimately the base result is the absorption of the cannabinoids through your lungs.
Whether you opt for glassware or a simple joint or elaborate blunt – know you are partaking in a tradition dating as far back as written history.
Eating & Drinking
You cannot merely scarf down a bunch of marijuana flowers and expect to have the effects of an “edible” – instead, you will typically need to use oils and/or fats to extract the THC from the plant, before then using said oils in your edible creation.
By using a decarboxylation process (activating the cannabinoids with heat), the active chemicals of marijuana become soluble in fat. This allows substances like butter to absorb a very high percentage of the cannabinoids in the affected plant. This is one reason for the powerful effects of edibles.
The process of digesting the cannabinoids produces a different and longer lasting high but will take longer to kick in.
Drinking cannabis first requires much the same process of activation of the cannabinoids, but will often use substances like alcohol rather than butter. Drinking it will also produce the unique high found from eating items like “pot cookies”.
Digestion produces a unique type of THC, THC-COOH; the reason for the different and longer lasting high.
Cannabis oil is typically the product being “vaped”, though there are devices that let you utilize dried flower as well. The vaping craze that has made a dent in the nicotine industry didn’t take long to begin adopting marijuana into its offerings.
Many people prefer vaping over smoking because it is typically less smelly, more discreet and doesn’t seem to hurt the lungs as much. Many long-term smokers still swear that the high received from pure smoking differs in some ways from a vape – but much of that has yet to be adequately studied. For all intents and purposes, this is a safer, or at least less abrasive, method than smoking as far as your lungs are concerned.
“Dabbing” is the method of burning up concentrated THC, typically wax, hash or shatter, generally on a hot metal surface and inhaling the ensuing vapor. While this could be lumped in with smoking or vaping, it has recently become its own verb and deserves a unique mention.
Taking a dab usually involves inhaling a harsher and more highly concentrated product and is typically the purview of the more hardcore cannabis user. However, those well versed in the method are able to balance out the heat and vapors to create a more mild experience than is typically witnessed.
The highs attained by dabbing are usually agreed to be amongst the most intense.
The Benefits Of Cannabis
From medicinal pot to CBD oils, there are a wide variety of methods and benefits that stem from the use and utilization of cannabis. From pain management to acute neurological diseases, medicinal cannabis has been emerging as a safer alternative to many common prescription medications.
The different methods and different cannabinoids provide various benefits and will either be more or less effective depending on what they are taken in conjunction with. There are literally volumes of information on the subject and providing a comprehensive overview is near impossible – especially since many studies are still ongoing.
Did you know? Mary Jane was the actual name of the woman who popularized pot brownies by distributing them to AIDS patients (8).
Instead, we at Hypothesis Journal will highlight a couple of scientific compilations that offer some supported generalizations as some of the more useful studies are those that have compiled and examined scientific findings over multiple decades. After a couple of examples, we will provide links to a few other robust studies.
You could spend weeks pouring over all of the literature out there. In fact, spending some time on Google Scholar and researching yourself is always a good idea (for any topic really).
The first study we will look at examined evidence in clinical trials dating as far back as 1948 to the present day:
Chronic Pain and Psychiatric Health Problems
Published in 2015, Dr. Kevin P.Hill issued a clinical review titled Medical Marijuana for Treatment of Chronic Pain and Other Medical and Psychiatric Problems (9). He summarizes the findings as such:
“Use of cannabis for chronic pain, neuropathic pain, and spasticity due to multiple sclerosis is supported by high-quality evidence.”
The evidence Dr. Hill cites included results from 6 trials on chronic pain, six trials that investigated neuropathic pain, and 12 trials that looked at multiple sclerosis. Most of these trials had positive results,
“suggesting that marijuana or cannabinoids may be efficacious for these indications.”
The second study we are going to pull a quote from deals with CBD and how it has been shown to help those with Alzheimer’s disease.
Evidence for Therapeutic Properties of Cannabidiol (CBD) for Alzheimer’s Disease by Georgia Watt and Tim Karl (10).
“Studies reviewed in this mini review provide “proof of principle” for the therapeutic benefits CBD and possibly CBD-THC combinations pose for AD therapy…studies discussed here provide promising preliminary data and the translation of this preclinical work into the clinical setting could be realized relatively quickly: CBD is readily available, appears to only have limited side effects (Bergamaschi et al., 2011) and is safe for human use.”
Other studies on CBD and THC:
- Therapeutic use of Cannabis sativa on chemotherapy‐induced nausea
- Therapeutic benefits potential of cannabinoids for crack-cocaine use
- cannabidiol for the prevention of relapse to drug use
- Cannabidiol (CBD) and its analogs: a review of their effects on inflammation
- Cannabinoids as therapeutic for PTSD
Remember this is only a very small snippet of the material out there.
Marijuana: Side Effects (continuous use)
Overindulgence in anything can lead to adverse side effects. Eat an excess of cookies or macaroni for a month, and you will quickly see ramifications.
Cannabis is no different, but the adverse effects are a far cry from those displayed in such propaganda films as “Reefer Madness” (the 1936 classic responsible in large part for the stigmatization of weed).
While marijuana use is not going to turn you into a violent monster, at Hypothesis Journal we firmly believe that hiding from the truth helps no one. The more you are aware of possible downsides, the more you can work around or prepare yourself for such things.
So in the name of keeping you as informed as possible, we are going to mention some of the more prominent side effects of marijuana use.
Did you know? There has never been a death reported due to a marijuana overdose (11).
There have been contradicting studies regarding things like cholesterol and blood pressure as it is related to cannabinoids. What has been found to be true, however, is that many forms of marijuana use will cause an uptick in the heart rate for two to three hours.
While more research is needed in this realm, you should be aware at least of the effects of an increased heart rate, especially if that is a possible issue for you. Check in at Hypothesis Journal occasionally to see if more research has been completed regarding weed and heart health.
While there are still yet to be any substantive long-term studies on the relation between marijuana and lung health, most doctors will warn against the long-term inhaling of burning plant matter from a sense of base logic.
The carcinogenic risks have seen mixed results in studies, but overall lung health will suffer from the constant inhalation of particulates regardless of their source – just how much has yet to be substantiated when related to marijuana.
Outside of smoking marijuana, lung health is more than likely entirely unaffected by cannabis use.
Marijuana use and CBD, in particular, has shown to be able to actually shield nerve cells from deterioration and even damage, making CBD very useful, at least in preliminary trials when dealing with neurological diseases.
More research is definitely needed before we can say for sure what the negative, if any, side effects on neurological systems may be. Some findings show that continual marijuana users may have a smaller orbitofrontal cortex (OFC), commonly associated with addiction, but also increased brain connectivity. What either of these things means is still up for debate.
Mental health is an interesting one. As we covered before, there are many possible positive side effects pertaining to issues like PTSD that marijuana has shown to benefit to varying degrees. However, there are also other mental health issues like schizophrenia that have shown to possibly be exacerbated by herb use. Anxiety is also a commonly reported issue with marijuana use.
Mental health is a realm where you need to be aware of any possible problems you may be affecting, and it behooves you to do the research on whether cannabis use may be an overall positive or negative decision for your specific mental health issues.
Methods, technology and public acceptance have come a long way from the days of the secret grow room attached to my uncle’s garage thirty years ago.
Hydroponics, indoor growing apparatuses and the amount of professional literature mean that same little secret room could be producing exponentially more herb, let alone the quality of the resulting flower itself. Plus, secrecy is much less of an issue for many as well – though there are still many archaic laws some of us must deal with.
Anyways, before we get too off track.
Marijuana can be grown successfully both indoors and outdoors, with either hydroponics or soil based methods. Different plant strains will thrive more under different methods of cultivation. We are going to go through a brief overview of the methods and systems used by small-scale growers.
Did you know? In some cases, Medicinal Marijuana is considered Kosher by Judaism (12).
Growing marijuana outdoors does not differ from the growth of many other crops, in fact, they have proven to be more resilient than many other plants (though the flowers themselves can be temperamental).
Plenty of sunshine and moderate weather conditions is really all you need. If the temperature stays above 86°F for multiple days you will see stunting and halt in the growth of your plants – the same goes for temperatures below 55°F. This can also kill your plants.
High winds and excessive rain can also damage the plants and reduce your yield. High moisture can cause mold and mildew as well. This may seem temperamental when listing pitfalls in a row like that, but the same can be said for most crops.
Find out what local gardeners do to ensure the health of their flowers and vegetables, and you can typically apply these methods to your marijuana plants.
If you are an experienced gardener, you should find this to be a relatively easy plant to grow and maintain.
Both soil-based and hydroponic systems can be used indoors, with the latter being the more popular. Indoor growing gives you much more control over the light and temperature in your plant’s environment.
Proper air circulation is a definite concern as well as the reduction of moisture in the air to avoid mildew. Do some research on the strain you wish to grow and the nutrients it needs. Avoid overfeeding and overwatering and you shouldn’t be confronted with too many unforeseen issues.
This is the most common form of marijuana cultivation in the West and allows one to grow the plant by directly feeding the plant water and nutrients without the need for soil.
This is a much broader topic if we want to delve into specifics, but suffice to say, there are hundreds of options out there and quite a few sophisticated pre-made setups that are great for those looking to start growing at home. This is definitely a topic Hypothesis Journal will be covering in more detail soon.
Marijuana: Current Politics
While medical marijuana still has battles left to fight across the nation for acceptance and legalization, recreational cannabis has seen an uptick in acceptance thanks to states like Colorado straight up legalizing it in all forms.
The fight is far far from over, but the trend seems to be strongly favoring legalization on most fronts. Sure there will always be those hold out areas, but the forecasts have been looking good. As long as the optics and economics surrounding the budding (couldn’t resist) the cannabis industry remain positive, this trend should have no problem continuing. Remember what we said over here?
These changes have led to the cannabis industry becoming one of the fastest growing on the globe. Currently sitting at $7.2 billion annually, and expected to reach over $20 billion by the year 2020, the legal pot industry in the U.S. is estimated to have created thousands of new jobs (13).
The data firm New Frontier puts the job number somewhere in the area of 300,000 (14).
Did you know? Legalizing marijuana may generate up to $8.7 billion in tax revenue per year (15).
In the United States, over 60% of the population supports legalization across the board, with this number continuing to rise year after years, even across political party lines (16).
As more legalization occurs in other major countries, the more scientific studies you will see being able to be carried out.
The more studies we can carry out, the more the medicinal properties of the plant can be touted.
The more the benefits of the plant can be touted, the more we will see countries loosening up their regulations.
This is a cycle we at Hypothesis Journal are happy to work to perpetuate.